HED:County agents: not just for farmers anymore
By Errol Castens
Hank Kimball they’re not.
Like the character on the 1960s rustic sitcom “Green Acres,” real live extension agents really do visit farmers.
And they do offer solutions for farm-related problems.
A few of them even drive Jeeps.
But unlike the bumbling, scatterbrained Kimball, extension ag agents (better known as county agents) actually have useful help to offer the variety of farmers, homeowners and business owners who make up their clientele.
Jacks (and Jills)
“Everybody wants you to be a jack of all trades,” said Tim Needham, ag extension agent in Tippah County and a former vocational agriculture teacher with a special interest in horticulture.
Within the past few weeks, Needham’s work has included addressing community development clubs on ways to enhance their areas, teaching elementary school students about landscaping, teaching a pesticide certification course, oversight of building costs on a fairgrounds addition, helping host a 4-H Crafts Fun Day and helping a beef producer begin a records management program.
“I get questions from, How do I get rid of the woodpecker that’s pecking on my house?’ to What kind of yield do you think I’ll get on this plot of land?'” Needham said.
The variety of client needs often means calling on reinforcements.
“You never know what question the next phone call or visitor will have,” said Charlie Stokes, Monroe County ag agent. “We depend on our experts at Mississippi State University to help us fill in a lot of the gaps.”
County ag agents aren’t just men, either. Mississippi has five women in such jobs, including Margaret Webb, who divides her time between overseeing 4-H youth programs and addressing the livestock needs of Lafayette County farmers. A second agent will oversee agronomy, forestry and related subjects beginning April 1.
A long way
The MSU Cooperative Extension Service is part of the nationwide education system that disseminates information in the subject areas of agriculture, homemaking and youth.
Now funded by a combination of county, state, and USDA monies, the Extension Service had its birth in the farmers’ institutes that formed in the 1860s to share crop and livestock knowledge among producers.
Erosion, pests, weather and changing economics were dictating that farmers employ the best practices in order to thrive, and education was a major part of the process.
Boys’ and girls’ clubs followed early this century to teach good farming and homemaking methods to new generations. Some point to a corn club in Holmes County as the origin of today’s 4-H.
The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 tied the Cooperative Extension Service to the land-grant college system and made it into the world’s largest system of adult education.
“Extension is primarily an education-based service,” said Dickie Rhea, agricultural district coordinator for Northeast Mississippi. “We take data developed at extension institutions and bring it to producers, homeowners and business owners.”
What many don’t realize is the variety of Extension services available to those who don’t make a living from agriculture.
“Seventy percent of my work is related to homeowners,” said Clay County ag agent Perry Kimbrough. “Home horticulture (ornamentals, fruits and vegetables) is the biggest part of my work.”
“I enjoy helping my clientele,” said Charlie Stokes, Monroe County ag extension agent. “It may be a lady with a flower garden, or it may be a cotton producer with twenty-five hundred acres.”
Dalton Garner’s Prentiss County clientele are just as diverse.
“We get a lot of calls from homeowners – from how to remove ladybugs in their homes to how to get grass established in their lawns, how to control moles, voles, armadillos and fire ants,” Garner said.
“Then I’ll turn right around and get a lot of livestock questions: what kind of rations to use, where to obtain replacement bulls and heifers. It’s always something different.”
The Extension Service sees all area residents as its clientele.
“I feel like an agent owes it to the people of his county not to be too specialized,” said Ronnie Jones, extension ag agent in Marshall County. “He needs to be up on most of the areas that they’re interested in.”
“Ultimately, our accountability goes back to county citizens,” Rhea said. “If a county agent is doing a good job of meeting the needs of the people, they can keep him.” Agents are held responsible not only by their Extension Service superiors but by county boards of supervisors as well.
Other team members
Extension home economists serve alongside agricultural agents in most counties of the state. They oversee home demonstration clubs, which began decades ago with groups in which girls were taught how to safely can home-raised vegetables and fruits. In addition, they may teach classes on parenting, nutrition and family financial management.
4-H agents involve children and youths in activities from the traditional livestock judging and clothing construction to computer usage, performing arts and travel.
Margaret Webb just completed a weeklong day camp for 4-H members in Lafayette County.
“We’ve done everything,” she said. “There’s been no time to be bored.”
Activities included bike riding with University of Mississippi bicycle patrol officers, making each child’s own lunch at a local pizzeria and creating – and cracking – pi–atas.
Other members of the extension team include office staff as well as district coordinators in the areas of agriculture and family and youth.
Personnel at Mississippi State University round out the Extension Service – compiling research, creating programs, writing and editing publications and dispersing client feedback. The latest addition to Extension’s education effort is its Website (http://ext.msstate.edu).
COUNTY AGENT ROSTER
row crops and horticulture
position vacant until April 1
farm financial management
home horticulture, livestock, forestry
vegetable production, livestock
Margaret Webb (4-H and livestock agent)
general ag agent position vacant until Apr. 1
Nat Dean, agent in training
farm financial management, horticulture
row crops, cattle
livestock, forestry, entomology
livestock, forestry, row crops